Until Next Time

During our entire stay at Great Sand Dunes National Park we had late-day clouds & sprinkles move in each day.  The bad part about that was that the clouds rolled in right around the prime-time for afternoon shadow madness on the dune field.  The good part about that was that if the skies cleared just enough to let some sun through, it setup things up for some pretty sunsets.

The first two nights the most spectacular parts of the sunsets were sudden and fleeting, so I simply sat back and enjoyed.  On our last night though, things moved more slowly and I was able to capture a quick glimpse of the sunset – complete with a wisp of the rising moon – using the camera on my cell phone.

Wisp of a Moon

Come the next morning, a few clouds were still hanging around out to the west, potentially setting things up for an interesting sunrise.  Because the park is nestled into the base of the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, you don’t get a ton of light on the dunes themselves as the sun comes up.  It takes about an hour for the sun to get over the peaks to the east and hit the sand, so by that time “golden hour” is over and the light is already getting flat.  Maybe these tufts of clouds could help make things more interesting than usual?  Hmmmm….

As we were having a quick breakfast and preparing to break camp to return to everyday life, the sun started glinting off of those tufts of clouds creating a little pink in the sky.  I used my cell phone camera again for the sake of quickness and commemorated the rosy sky farewell Dunes made for us.

Red Virga Morning

So, until next year (or sooner) Dunes…

– JC

 

Treasure Hunting

Our annual late-summer trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park came and went entirely too fast yet again this year.  The funny thing about this trip was that we didn’t spend as much time in the park as we normally do since we chose to do some exploring in the San Luis Valley area.  (More on those adventures to come in future posts.)  The time we did spend hiking in the sand field turned into a little bit of photographic treasure hunting for me.
I always say that I can find something new to take pictures of at Dunes every time we go.  It’s one of the reasons I love it so much down there.  This year’s yield of pictures wasn’t as plentiful as years past, but I did come across some fun stuff.
The first find was an awesomely sharp sand ridge that created lines and shadows in the morning sun that I couldn’t look away from.  I took quite a few shots of this one ridge, playing with angles and framing.  In the end, I kept two of the shots since I couldn’t decide which I liked more – the horizontal or vertical version.  Both had their merits, and I can foresee printing one of these for display in some way in our house down the road.
The next find was a piece of weathered wood laying atop a different ridge of sand.  It caught my eye from a distance because it reminded me of conch shells I’d find on the beach growing up on the east coast.  I knew it couldn’t be a shell, though I had to check it out.  I was happy that I did as it gave me a chance to fiddle with different depths of focus to try and get the shot just right.
Desert Conch
The last find of the hike is what you’d expect if you’ve been visiting Alpha Pup Photography for any length of time – a prairie sunflower.  The bloom was still in full swing during our trip, so there was ample opportunity to find just the right shot.  This one ended up being my favorite…
Summer Sunshine
It was a good morning on the Dunes with some typical sites and some not-so-typical finds.  Certainly a great way to start our trip before venturing further out into the Valley in the days to come…

 

– JC

Everybody Wants to be Ansel Adams (Including Me)

I’m betting that just about everybody who’s seen a black & white landscape picture has silently and sarcastically thought to themselves, “Nice job, Ansel Adams-wanna be.”  I know I’m guilty of it, even with my own shots.  But there’s gobs of reasons his name is synonymous with black & white nature photography – he took a lot of damn good shots and did some groundbreaking work in the field in terms of technique!

Maybe it’s because Adams’ work was mainstream in the sense that it appeared in places other than just the fanciest museums so I was exposed to it a little more often, but I usually prefer black & white landscape shots to those in color.  Don’t get me wrong – color landscape photography can be really amazing.  But, I deal in reality and my reality/luck is that I’m rarely in the right spot at the right time with the utterly perfectly dramatic conditions to get a National Geographic-worthy color shot no matter how hard I try.  So instead, I work to find something interesting about the scene nature’s put in front of me, even if it’s not readily apparent the moment I take the picture.

It may sound silly, but that was definitely the case at the Grand Canyon.  That vast swath of land is so beautiful I still can’t find words to do it justice.  It’s also really hard to capture it in a way that conveys both its magnitude and its beauty.  So, instead of frustrating myself with not-quite-ideal conditions, I made the best of what I had.  Turns out, the best of what I got was on our way back to Phoenix at the end of our stay in the park.

The morning we left, we decided to head further east towards Desert View Tower to get a different vantage point on the Grand Canyon.  The 25-mile drive out to Desert View Tower had quite a few places were you could stop and look out over the rim.  What was cool for us was that, after spending 3 days in the Village looking north out into the Canyon and across to the North Rim, this drive put us more towards the eastern side so we were looking up the Canyon to the west, more in line with how the Colorado River flows through it.  Because it was mid-morning, the light was just about right to keep things bright, yet still have some dramatic shadows in play, so I activated my inner Ansel Adams and got to work.

I normally shoot my black & white shots in color first, then convert them to black & white later during post-processing.  Even in cases when the color is a bit blah due to flat light, I find I can manipulate the monochrome version more easily to get make things come out the way I want it.  Using this approach over the years, I’ve built up a sense for what I think would make a good black & white shot based on the Technicolor version in front of me when I initially take the picture.  That helps me think through the shooting process to get interesting or dramatic shots.  When I get home to review and process the images, sometimes I surprise even myself in terms of what I can come up with in black & white.

Here’s 3 examples from this trip alone where I was really surprised with how much better I thought things looked in black & white instead of color.  Each is presented in a slide show so you can see what I saw when I took the picture versus how it changed when I converted to black & white.

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Ansel Adams was definitely onto something all those years ago, so I’ll keep channeling him on occasion when it comes to my own landscape & nature photography.

– JC

Down is Optional, Up is Mandatory

No truer words have ever been spoken when it comes to canyon hiking.  When you’re hiking up mountains, the harder part of the day is usually the climb, but at least that’s the first part of your day when your legs are fresher.  Coming down can still be tough, but at least you’re working with gravity instead of against it.

Canyon hiking is the exact opposite.  Your day starts with the “easy” downward trek, but then you have to climb up and out to finish the day when you’re at your most exhausted.  The canyons I’ve hiked have been in hot desert climates, so that makes the exhaustion all the worse on the way back up if you’re not careful.

Whether it’s mountain or canyon hiking, it’s still worth it even though there’s different physical and mental challenges involved.

On our 2nd full day in Grand Canyon National Park, it was finally time to dive into the Canyon a little.  Before we did, I had to get out to try for sunrise shots again though.  I’m happy to say the weather cooperated a bit better than the day before!

Second Sunrise

Our plan was to head down the Bright Angel trail as far as we could reasonably go on a winter day hike.  We fueled up with a good breakfast, grabbed our gear, and off we went.

Trail conditions weren’t too bad, though we found ourselves walking on snow and ice for the first 1.5 miles of the trail.  Thankfully, we brought our traction devices to shore up our footing, though that didn’t mean we could blaze down the trail.  It was slick and steep enough that one slip in the wrong place and – whoop! – you’d be off the trail and taking a really bad downward plunge.

The Descent Begins

A little ways down the trail, we came across what may be one of the most amusing – and useful – signs we’ve ever seen in our hiking travels.  Aside from providing important safety info to novice hikers thinking they could slay the Canyon on an easy long walk, we enjoyed the artwork.  My husband correctly pointed out that the National Park Service probably commissioned someone draw that puking hiker on the sign.  That thought gave us a good laugh.

It's a Sign

Our goal at the start of the day was modest – just make it down to the 1.5 Mile outpost that’s – you guessed it – about 1.5 miles from the trailhead.  Not knowing what the trail conditions would be or how steep the decent would be, it seemed like a reasonable goal.  I think we shocked ourselves when we made it that far in good time, even though I was snapping away during the hike as the lighting and shadows changed on our view of the Canyon.

Immense

Pleasantly surprised by how good we felt, the trail conditions, and the time we made, we decided to plunge onward and shoot for the 3 Mile outpost.  (Yes, about 3 miles from the trailhead.  Such creative naming conventions!)

We arrived just in time for a spot of lunch and for the lighting and shadows to go flat on the Canyon.  That didn’t mean I didn’t take a picture though because we came across another new trail sign favorite that inspired this post… down is optional, up is mandatory.  So succinct and so true!  I couldn’t leave without snagging a shot of that sign.

Hiking Truth

We were still feeling good after lunch and the weather was still pretty stellar.  As much as we were tempted to press on a little further down into the Canyon, we decided to be smart and head back up.  It was a looonnnngggg, steep, slick, mushy climb, but we made it back out with relative ease.   We even found a fossil in rock along the way!

Tiny Footprints

We weren’t sure how far we descended into the Canyon in terms of altitude on the way down, but when we reached the top my watch estimated we had climbed up over 2200 feet in elevation over those 3 miles of trail!  They say the Canyon is, on average, 1 mile deep, so we made it a little shy of halfway down to the Canyon floor.

Once we got back to the trailhead on the rim, we got some perspective on how far down we went because we could see the 3 Mile outpost.  Yeah, it’s a ways down there!  (The oval is an approximation of where the 3 Mile resthouse is along the trail.)

3 Mile Resthouse (Approximate)

Maybe next trip we’ll get a little more ambitious and climb further down this trail or a different path.  For my first journey into the Grand Canyon itself, it was a pretty awesome day!

– JC

PS – The Canyon treated us to a pretty spectacular sunset as the cherry on top of our day.  We even came across a little snowman family someone had made, complete with bits of carrot for the noses!

Improving Impressions

Waking up at the Grand Canyon to start our first full day in the park meant getting up early for some sunrise shots.  The forecast was iffy, so we weren’t sure if we’d see any sun that early, but I was willing to try in spite of the snow showers lingering from the night before.

The best part of shooting sunrises in winter is getting to sleep in a little later than you would for a summer sunrise.  Yay short days and long nights!  Sure, the cold isn’t fun, but that’s the trade-off.  I also find the cold scares a lot of people off, so I have a better chance of shooting what I want, from an angle I want, without crowds.

On this particular morning, my impressions of the Grand Canyon started to improve and line up more with my expectations.  The weather wasn’t ideal, but with a hint of sunlight brightening the clouds of the snow squall moving through just before the sun broke the horizon, I had a funky blueish, moody light to start the day.  If nothing else, we could see a lot more of the Canyon than I could the previous afternoon when we arrived!

Knowing I’d have 2 more mornings to hope for better weather, we didn’t stay out long.  What started as snow showers turned into a wind-driven snow/sleet combo that stung as it hit your face.  It also meant a lot of lens cleaning, so that was it for the day’s sunrise shooting session.

We bugged out and warmed-up over breakfast, then set back out to check out trail conditions and ease our way into whatever we were going to make of the day.  All it took was a few hours after sunrise for the weather to start clearing and yes – the angels finally started singing and the Canyon looked like what I had imagined, and far surpassed any expectation I had of it!

Clearly Big

Our day found us keeping it simple by hanging out and taking a long walk around the trail along the South Rim.  It seemed like every few feet when I stopped to take a peek, my jaw dropped further and further in amazement of the geological feat in front of me.

Though I took a fair number of pictures that morning, when I got home and sorted through my shots, I realized that so many of them looked the same.  Then it dawned on me – even though we walked probably 3 miles or so along the rim, the Canyon is just so big that changing your viewpoint by a mile or two doesn’t drastically affect the perspective in a picture!  The only things really changing were the clouds in the sky and the shadows on the ridges in the Canyon.  Still, I couldn’t complain because it’s just stunning to see.

After our morning spent along the rim, we wandered into the woods and walked some of the greenways that cut through the park connecting different parts of Grand Canyon Village.  Under normal circumstances, when the government is operating (argh shutdown!), you can rent bikes to cruise all over the Village along these pathways through groves of ponderosa pines and junipers.  It made for a nice wintry walk to bookend our day.

As we wandered back to our lodge, we passed the Grand Canyon’s train station.  The Grand Canyon Railway has a long history – predating the establishment of the park itself!

We didn’t ride the train, but it was parked at the station, having recently arrived for the day’s trip up from Williams, AZ about 65 miles away.  Maybe next trip to the Grand Canyon we’ll go for a ride ourselves.

With our first full day at the park nearing an end, we called it a day.  Tomorrow was shaping up to be a long one since we planned to get down into the Canyon as long as weather and trail conditions cooperated.

 

– JC

Delayed First Impressions

They say that first impressions mean a lot.  Whether it’s a person or a place or an experience, it sticks with you.  For my first-ever trip to the Grand Canyon, I was expecting a big “AAAAAHHHHH…” moment with the sound of angels singing as I laid my eyes on that majesty for the first time.  Alas, that moment would have to wait – just my luck!

Our trip to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim was a little semi-last-minute journey we decided to take since my husband’s birthday fell on a weekend – an excellent excuse to get away with what little vacation time we had available from our “regular” jobs.  We were both unlucky and lucky in the timing and location we chose because we booked the trip before the US government shutdown happened (unlucky), but the state of Arizona bailed us out (lucky)!!  (The state provided funding for basic services at Grand Canyon National Park because they recognize it’s so vital to their economy – even in winter.)

We weren’t sure what to expect because of all of the uncertainty caused by the political garbage going on.  There was also weather to consider.  Heading into the trip, there was a good chance we’d get caught in a storm on the 3-4 hour drive up from Phoenix.  That’s where luck struck again and the storm hit 2 days before we got there, meaning the roads were clear, even if the skies continued to look threatening.  We tried to stay positive, even though we were a little leery of how all of this was going to go.

Thankfully, travel went as planned and we got to the park about mid-afternoon… just as rain started to come down.  The park rangers were working at the entrances to hand out maps & info.  (They weren’t allowed to collect the entrance fees that help support the park.)  As the ranger handed us our map, she said we should hustle if we wanted to see the Canyon because it was quickly filling in with fog and might not be visible within the next 15-20 minutes at the rate the weather was rolling in.  Gah!

We took her advice and got our hustle on and bolted straight to the rim.  While impressive and – photographically speaking – kinda cool with the mist & fog in the air, it certainly wasn’t what I pictured in my mind as a first impression.

First Impressions

Don’t get me wrong – I was thrilled to finally be there and recognized I had a few days’ stay for the weather to improve.  But, that first impression of the Grand Canyon wasn’t exactly what I thought it’d be.
The weather was steadily getting worse as the cold rain picked up in intensity, but we were able to walk around a bit along the rim to see if anything else was visible.  Unfortunately, the ranger was right – it didn’t take long for the Canyon to fill in with fog and ick to become a sea of soupy white blah.

Without the Canyon to distract us with its beauty, I kept my eye out for any little quick shots I could grab with my phone in the wintry rain.  That’s when we came across this scenic locator.  It looked old, and from the inscription on it, it was.

Old School Sight Seeing

We couldn’t quite figure out how it worked until the next day when we ran into some simple devices on the trail that were metal tubes that locked into a notch to direct your eye towards a point of interest.  It didn’t magnify it at all.  It just got your eye pointed in the right direction when the tube rested on a preset notch.  We suspect this locator once had one of those tubes and you’d rest it on those notches to see the sights each slot pointed you too.  What a magnificently simple, clever solution!

So that was my lackluster first impression of the Grand Canyon.  I wasn’t going to let it get me down as we would be in the park for a few days.  It was bound to get better – I just had to wait a little bit longer and hang onto that optimism bubbling away in my mind.

– JC

Dry Dunes

We made our annual camping trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park near the end this past summer.  The trip was wonderful, as usual, though something was very different from trips past.  Things were oh, so very dry…

Southwestern and south central Colorado had extreme drought conditions through much of 2018.  (It’s only gotten marginally better this fall – they’re down to only severe drought conditions.) . It was so dry down at Dunes that Medano Creek was completely dried up by the time we got there in late August!  We’ve been there plenty of times during the late summer months and we know that the creek is usually barely a trickle and is really dependent on thunderstorms for flow at that time of year.  This year though?  Completely and utterly dry and gone!  Not a trace of the creek.

To give you an idea of what we found, here’s a shot I typically take looking northeast, upstream towards the mountains.  (This shot was taken during a trip in August 2010, a year or two after some wildfires in the hills whose ashes was still washing downstream.)

Medano Creek

Here’s what we found this year…

So Dry

Little different, huh?  Even in dry years, there’s usually at least a sign that the creek had been there recently.  Some wet sand, maybe a trickle of water.  This year?  Nada.  Even when you dug your toes down a few inches, the sand was bone dry.

I always say no matter how many times we go to Dunes, we always see something new.  The lack of Medano Creek was a certainly new one for us.  It also gave us a reason to hike as far as we could (or felt like it) upstream to see if we could find signs of water.  I wish I could say we found a trace, but we did not after trekking a few miles along the creek bed.

What we did see along the way were a few fun sights of high desert life continuing in spite of the drought.  Prairie sunflowers were still around, though not as bountiful as they’ve been the last few years.  Dune grasses persistent in their survival, still mainly green in color.

 

And of course, the overall scenery was splendid as it always is…

Meandering to a Vista

Although it was abnormally dry, we still had a great time camping and hiking and hanging out with friends.  Until next year Dunes…

– JC

This post was featured as a guest blog on Zach of the Jungle 24-May-2019.